Farming. The land is your teacher, its bounty your bank account. But mistakes and failure trump them both.
Eight years into the job, Tim and Barb Loya know all about mistakes. Big ones, like planting 253 blueberry bushes without adequate ground preparation or the time/ability to take care of them. Tim would be hard pressed to find one of those bushes alive today.
And then there were fruit trees. Forty of them. Their roots got too wet, and they went the way of the blueberry bushes.
Tim can go on and on about the mistakes and lessons learned, and he did as much on the afternoon of Sept. 9, when he and his wife led a tour of their farm on Overly Road, Dorset Township. The tour was one in a series organized by the Local Food Council. Several producer families were on the tour and compared notes with Tim and Barb on how to raise everything from pumpkins to shallots.
The Loyas’ farm, Farm 153, is based upon a former 88-acre dairy farm that stretched to the east until Route 11 was built. The highway bisected the farm, making it tough to get the cows to pasture when there are four lanes of traffic to cross. Years, decades, passed without a harvest, which is why Tim says they are experiencing a “large harvest after no harvest.”
The couple were living and working in Cleveland Heights when they came across the farm in 2007. Tim was managing an apartment building and Barb teaching in a special education setting at the time. He had explored farming back in the 1990s, but the timing was off. When he revisited the idea with Barb in 2007, they started looking for abandoned farms in Ashtabula County because of the lower cost of land here. The former dairy farm on Overly Road had a lot of the things they were looking for, including a house that would not be a big renovation burden on their finances and time.
They made the purchase that year but continued to live in Cleveland Heights and commute to the farm. That first year is when they made many of their mistakes, including starting off without a business plan, failing to organize their tools and equipment in outbuildings, and planting on ground that floods. Thus, they had nothing to sell in 2008, the year they moved to the farm.
Since then their son, Elijah, has come along, Barb took early retirement and they have learned that farming is “hard fun,” production-size farming has to make money and “to succeed at growing food, we must do things right and do them on time.”
The beautiful heads of lettuce, bunches of red peppers and tomatoes growing in their containers and shaded beds are testimony to the couple’s commitment to do things right and on time. Tim says they raise high-quality food but the challenge is efficiency. To that end, they keep meticulous records. Notebooks full of charts track everything from the age and quantity of the seed they use to when they harvested and the yields. The charts guide their planting and cultivating decisions in subsequent years.
A growing field
Farm 153 is a seed-to-market operation that grows vegetables for the Cleveland area. Their customers include a grocery store and three schools, two of them universities. They are part of a new wave of agriculture in the county, one that grows for the Cleveland and Akron markets and is constantly pushing the “growing season’s” parameters to meet the demand for fresh, locally grown products.
“I am amazed at the amount of food being produced in this county, but there is a lot more that could be produced around here,” Tim told the tour participants. “We are sitting on acres of opportunity. We could produce a lot more food and we could feed this county.”
Tim says buyers must do their research before looking at properties and make sure there will be a steady supply of quality water on the land, a mix of slope and variegation, and materials for permaculture. Thus far, Farm 153 has used plastic rather than permaculture methods, such as hugelkultur, which involves growing on mounds of dirt with a decomposing log base. The mounds are time consuming and expensive to build but don’t require the input of plastics and other oil- and natural gas-based products. Tim says their farm is moving toward a permaculture model as it is nearly impossible to recycle plastics.
Tim says that persons who are thinking about making farming their livelihood should”start small” and master the skills and procedures for growing a small amount of food. Talk to other growers, take advantage of educational events and read voraciously. Tim and Barb displayed during the tour a portion of the library they’ve amassed and still refer to for guidance. For starters, he recommends “The New Seed Starters Handbook” by Nancy Bubel. If he had to sum up all the wisdom and instruction in those books, it would amount to “Strong seedlings, timely transplanting, diligent weeding and copious watering puts plants firmly on track for vigor and high yields; failure to do these fundamental processes is fatal to success,” he says.
All that information does not, however, explain the farm’s unusual name. It has nothing to do with the address (1440 Overly, off South Denmark Road), but rather coincidence and faith.
“(153) is a number that keeps coming up in my life a lot,” Tim says. He points to the Gospel of John, 21:11, and its story of Simon Peter’s large catch of 153 large fish that didn’t tear the net, as just one example how the farm that had no harvest for many years is now bringing forth a large one.